Even before the first Chinese dynasty, complex societies inhabiting the area now known as China, organized into settlements. The most important settlements were protected by rammed earth walls. The first dynasty, the Shang (1600-1050 BCE), built large walls as early as around 1,550 BCE. Differing from later walls, which were built along a strategic defense line, these walls were built to enclose the settlements and areas.
The Shang would eventually be conquered from the west by the Zhou Dynasty (1046-256 BCE), which developed a complex system of government. In fact, it was the Zhou system’s decline that Confucius (551-479 BCE) witnessed and drew from greatly for his political philosophy. The Zhou also created walled cities, and it was at this time that the first major conflicts with northern tribesman, the Xianyun, were recorded.
As the newly independent states vied for supremacy in a state of constant warfare, northern barbarians were also a constant menace. Eventually, the Chinese succeeded in eliminating many of those on their immediate northern border, but it was a bittersweet victory because it meant there was no longer a buffer between China and the even fiercer Mongols further north. This new proximity led to increased cultural exchange, as well as the Chinese adoption of nomadic fighting techniques.
At the forefront of the Three Kingdoms was one of ancient China’s most famous battles, fought in late 208 CE. An area of the Yangtze River located near modern Chibi City in the central Chinese province of Hubei was filled with ships as far as the eye could see. They were swift wooden vessels, built for speed and filled with hard-faced men, arrows strung on their backs, ready to be released on the enemy. Massive warships with imposing war towers piled high with soldiers were also anchored in the river.
These military ships were part of the mightiest naval invasion ever seen in China, but on the ships, the sailors were weary. Contrary to their imposing facade, these men were unfamiliar with the trials of river combat – they were Northerners, more familiar with the frigid weather and the flat plains of northern China than being marooned on wooden ships in the water. Some of the men were ill, seasick from the prolonged exposure to life on the water. To combat this, Cao Cao, the supreme warlord of the northern Wei Kingdom and leader of the fleet, had ordered his men to tie their ships together to limit the swaying and to alleviate the sea sickness. It seemed to help, and ironically, this seemingly simple solution would also spell doom for the invaders.
The ensuing Battle of Red Cliffs changed Chinese history. It marked the end of the Han Dynasty, one of the greatest in China’s history, and pushed China into the era of the Three Kingdoms, an era of perpetual warfare and chaos. Furthermore, the battle also had a dramatic effect on Chinese culture, media, and literature, and the battle and its major participants remain legendary in China.
Even today, movies, video games, and comic books about this battle can be found in China, from the blockbuster film Red Cliff in 2009 to the video game series Dynasty Warriors. Clearly, the ramifications of this period of Chinese history can still be felt, nearly 2,000 years later.
The Battle of Red Cliffs: The History and Legacy of the Decisive Battle Fought Near the Start of Ancient China’s Three Kingdoms Period examines how the Han Dynasty unraveled and the fighting that ensued.